The Power Makers Steam, Electricity, and the Men Who Invented Modern America

Maury Klein

Bloomsbury Press



560 Pages


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Maury Klein is one of America’s most acclaimed historians of business and industry. In The Power Makers, he offers an epic narrative of his greatest subject yet—the “power revolution” that transformed American life in the course of the nineteenth century and that turned America from an agrarian society into a technological superpower.
The steam engine, the incandescent bulb, the electric motor—inventions such as these replaced backbreaking toil with machine labor and changed every aspect of daily life in the span of a few generations. The power revolution is not a tale of machines, however, but of men: inventors such as James Watt, Elihu Thomson, and Nikola Tesla; entrepreneurs such as George Westinghouse; savvy businessmen such as J.P. Morgan, Samuel Insull, and Charles Coffin of General Electric. Striding among them like a colossus is the figure of Thomas Edison, who was creative genius and business visionary at once. With consummate skill, Klein recreates their discoveries, their stunning triumphs and frequent failures, and their unceasing, tumultuous, and ferocious battles in the marketplace.
In Klein’s hands, their personalities and discoveries leap off the page. The Power Makers is a saga of inspired invention, dogged persistence, and business competition at its most naked and cutthroat—a tale of America in its most astonishing decades.


Praise for The Power Makers

"Maury’s Klein’s The Power Makers allows us to step back and remind ourselves—and we do need reminding—that the past two centuries have been a period of extraordinary invention . . . Fascinating."—William Tucker, The Wall Street Journal

"Klein’s book reads like a fairy tale . . . Klein himself rarely fails to reach for the full significance of events. (‘Every material achievement that would characterize civilization during the next two centuries began with the possibilities opened by the steam engine,’ he writes of James Watt’s invention.) The Power Makers is at once grandiloquent and granular. At technical descriptions, Klein excels. In explaining a disadvantage of Edison’s direct current—the greater the current, the bigger the wire needed to conduct it—he offers this nifty illustration: ‘to light Fifth Avenue from Fourteenth to Fifty-ninth Street, the conductors would have to be as large as a man’s leg.’ If you haven’t given Boyle’s law much thought since the Reagan revolution, reading Klein will reward you with an excellent course in heat, electricity, and magnetism, at very little cost to your composure."—Jill Lepore, The New Yorker

"The Power Makers vividly and brilliantly reveals how the revolutions of steam and electricity, one facilitating the other, combined to reshape American society. Maury Klein tells a fascinating, heroic tale peopled by such giants as Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse and J.P. Morgan—whose partnerships, subterranean deals, and marketplace battles redefined not just American commerce, but the American landscape as well."—Edward J. Renehan Jr., author of Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

"Maury Klein's stories of heroic inventors creating the industrial revolution make the history of technology come alive."—Daniel Walker Howe, NBCC Award nominee for What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848

"This well-oiled colossus of a book—its moving parts working together like a mighty machine—illuminates an epic period of national growth, when the country's first big carbon footprints were made on a march toward greatness and plenty."—Thomas Mallon, author of Henry and Clara, Bandbox, and Fellow Travelers

"In this narrative, historian Klein (emer., Univ. of Rhode Island) focuses on the emergence of two interrelated energy technologies, steam and electricity, in America between 1800 and the 1939 New York World's Fair . . . The author's account . . . is primarily biographical, concentrating on the individuals who developed key power technologies and the means to commercialize and manage them, including inventor-entrepreneurs like Robert Fulton, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse and managers like Samuel Insull, Henry Villard, and Charles Coffin. A central thesis is the importance of the collusion (and often collision) between inventors, entrepreneurs, managers, and financiers in moving technological devices into the commercial arena and sustaining them. The book is well organized, using chapters on the world fairs of 1876, 1893, and 1939 to summarize developments and convey the impact of the power revolution on daily life. Klein skillfully synthesizes the best of existing scholarship in the history of technology and business history with his own research to produce an engaging, well-written work. Summing Up: Recommended. All levels/libraries."—T. S. Reynolds, Michigan Technological University, Choice magazine

"Business historian Klein brings the steam and electrical power revolutions memorably to life. The author enlivens the narrative in two ways. First, he tethers it to three industrial exhibits—the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia, the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago and the 1939 World's Fair in New York—all occurring within the span of a lifetime, each neatly showcasing for the common man (and the general reader) the successive fruits of the power revolution and together linking the steam to the electric era. Second, he sprinkles lively portraits of the uncommon men responsible for the stunning transformation in the way we live: James Watt and the steam engine, Michael Faraday and the electromagnetic motor, Thomas Edison and the incandescent lamp. Klein also tells the story of Edison's principal rival, George Westinghouse; the eccentric visionary Nikola Tesla; Samuel Insull, who figured out how to deliver electricity cheaply to the masses; and scores of lesser-known figures who played a significant role in the advancement of the technological revolution. In addition to his comprehensive discussion of the discoveries, inventions and improvements, Klein also explains the centrality of politics, finance and public relations to the development, marketing and widespread adoption of the many wonders coming from progressive workshops like Menlo Park. From steamships, locomotives and trolleys, to telephones, radios, record players and a host of household appliances, the era was packed with astonishing developments that came with dizzying speed. The author makes room for a few cautionary tales about the blessings of this new technology, about the rampant materialism it helped inspire and about the damage inflicted during the rush to the future. For the most part, though, the book is a paean to the genius of an age not long past and a tribute to the men who made—far more than any politician or statesman—the modern world. An endlessly entertaining and informative treatment of a vast, sometimes difficult subject."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Klein presents an engaging, annotated, and accessible portrait of 18th- through early 20th-century inventors and entrepreneurs who fashioned America into the world's economic powerhouse . . . Klein highlights the famous—Thomas Edison, J.P. Morgan, and George Westinghouse—and the lesser known—including Nikola Tesla, Samuel Insull, and Charles Coffin—while also surveying the proliferation of industry based on their inventions, notably the railroad, steamship, and electric motor . . . This book will especially satisfy new or younger devotees of American applied scientific and technological history."—Frederick J. Augustyn Jr., Library Journal

"In an ambitious and expansive narrative, Klein chronicles the advent of steam power and the electrification of America. Klein's descriptions of the science of steam power, beginning with James Watt, and electricity are clear and detailed. He is especially strong when exploring the confounding engineering feats needed to make electricity a commercially feasible commodity. The heart of the book is the collision of entrepreneurs, inventors and financiers, and the epic battle between two icons of American industry, Edison and Westinghouse, to control and profit from the electrification of America. Along the way Klein brings dramatically to life the triumphs and disappointments, both human and technical, as the fledgling electric companies sought to service American homes and businesses. In a well-written and satisfying account, Klein makes readers aware of the magnitude of the energy, genius and tenacity of not only Edison—whose development of the world's first power station in 1881 on New York's Pearl Street was a momentous accomplishment—but also of Westinghouse and many others whose discoveries and vision made cheap electricity possible."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Maury Klein is the author of many books, including The Life and Legend of Jay Gould; Days of Defiance: Sumter, Secession, and the Coming of the Civil War; and Rainbow's End: The Crash of 1929. He is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Rhode Island.
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  • Maury Klein

  • Maury Klein is the author of many books, including The Life and Legend of Jay Gould, Days of Defiance: Sumter, Secession, and the Coming of the Civil War, and Rainbow’s End: The Crash of 1929. He is professor emeritus at the University of Rhode Island.